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Samsung, Nvidia patent tiff: Uncovering the truth

Posted: 17 Nov 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Samsung? Nvidia? patent? Velocity Micro? processor?

Patent squabbles among semiconductor companies have lost their novelty a while back. And for the most part, their purpose for doing so tends to shift to a number of ulterior motives for the parties involved. One in particular has a large company picking on a smaller one and I can't help but ask why?

Samsung has countersued Nvidia in graphics IP fight, and dragged Nvidia customer Velocity Micro into the fight. Calling others out for iffy benchmarking as part of your defensive strategy in a countersuit strikes me as lame. But dragging a small company, a customer of a chip whose patents are in dispute, into your own legal fight with a big dog seems a little desperate.

That's how I read Samsung's recent legal wrangle with Nvidia.

Samsung Electronics last week countersued Nvidia, alleging the graphics chipmaker for violating six Samsung patents and making false claims about the speed of Nvidia processors.

The suit, filed on November 4 in a Virginia federal court, came two months after Nvidia sued Samsung and Qualcomm, saying the companies were using Nvidia's graphics patents without paying. Lawsuits Nvidia filed against Samsung and Qualcomm for patent infringement are presently before the International Trade Commission and in Delaware District Court.

One of the curious twists in this legal fight is that Samsung, while countersuing Nvidia, also sued a Richmond, Virginia-based company called Velocity Micro, a user of Nvidia's graphics chip.

If you recall, Velocity Micro is the firm that rolled out one of the early Android-based e-readers called "Cruz." That was back in 2010. Velocity Micro today still remains a small boutique company.

Now, Samsung's countersuit, filed in Virginia, focuses on eight patents. Nvidia is alleged to have violated six. Velocity is alleged to have violated all eight.

Why on earth Samsung is going after Velocity Micro was a mystery to me, because it's hard to believe Velocity Micro is the only company using Nvidia's Tegra. When asked, Nvidia spokesman said Tegra customers "include many automobile manufacturers, as well as IT companies like Acer, Asus, LG, etc."

Then, in reading a message posted by Velocity Micro president and CEO Randy Copeland on the company site, I've come to realise something I didn't initially consider before: Velocity Micro is just a pawn in the Korean giant's legal games.

Velocity Micro's Copeland laid this all out in his message: "Samsung has decided to drag us in to its legal battle with Nvidia purely for the purpose of claiming that the Federal District Court for Virginia's Eastern District here in Richmond, also informally known as "the rocket docket" by some, is a reasonable jurisdiction for their litigation."

"They tactically need Velocity, a Richmond company, to be part of this new suit so they can have a faster time to trial to counter their lawsuits with Nvidia that are pending in those other courts. They are trying to beat Nvidia to the punch on other fronts, but they are all too willing to throw a private company under the proverbial bus for their own strategic reasons. It's simply wrong, and a shining example of what's broken in big corporate America."

Well said.

Velocity Micro stated that it has never been contacted by Samsung on the alleged patent infringement before. The lawsuit came "completely out of the blue." Copeland added, "We know nothing about the previous issues between Samsung and Nvidia, and we don't care."

Copeland might not care about "the previous issues" between Samsung and Nvidia. But both Samsung and Nvidia clearly see a lot riding on these cases.

For Nvidia, this is all about earning "an appropriate return" on the company's huge investment in GPUs and graphics IPs by licensing its graphics cores and patents.

Nvidia, which hasn't exactly seen a stellar success in winning a lot of smartphone design sockets for its own mobile chips, wants a piece of action from Samsung and Qualcomm whose chips dominate the smartphone market.

As Nvidia turns to its big IP push, Nvidia filed patent infringement complaints against Samsung and Qualcomm earlier with both ITC and the U.S. District Court, in Delaware.

Nvidia is asking the ITC to block shipments of Samsung Galaxy mobile phones and tablets containing Qualcomm's Adreno, ARM's Mali or Imagination's PowerVR graphics architectures. Nvidia is also asking the Delaware court to award damages to the company for the infringement of its patents.

At least, in Nvidia's mind, the company has played fair in its IP strategy, as it starts with a negotiation.

The company said that with Samsung, "Our licensing team negotiated directly with Samsung on a patent portfolio license. We had several meetings where we demonstrated how our patents apply to all of their mobile devices and to all the graphics architectures they use."

The negotiation stalled, according to Nvidia, with Samsung repeatedly saying that this was mostly their suppliers' problem.

Nvidia is said to be seeking the courts' judgment to confirm the validity, infringement and value of the company's patents. A legal victory for Nvidia, if it happens, will put the Santa Clara, Calif. company among big boys in the chip industry milking its IP. Nvidia is said to have been in IP talks with several companies, including Samsung, but it has not unveiled any new licensing deals.

- Junko Yoshida
??EE Times

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